By Sarah Mac Donald - 25 October, 2016
“The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either” – Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan.
The court of appeal in Belfast has upheld a previous judgment against Ashers Bakery which found the Christian firm guilty of discrimination over its refusal to make a cake with a pro gay marriage message.
On Monday, the three appeal judges said the bakery had discriminated against Gareth Lee, a member of the LGBT group Queer Space, when it declined to fulfil his order for a cake bearing the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
Mr Lee had ordered the cake, which featured the puppets Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, for an event marking International Day Against Homophobia.
He placed the order at an Ashers branch in Belfast city centre in May 2014.
However, two days after the order had been accepted, Ashers called him back to say it could not proceed with the cake due to the proposed slogan, which conflicted with their Christian belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
In the original court case, District Judge Isobel Brownlie ruled that religious beliefs could not dictate the law and ordered Ashers to pay damages of £500.
The evangelical Christian company appealed that ruling, arguing that it did not decline the order over Mr Lee’s sexuality, but rather over the slogan and message he was seeking to put on the cake, which went against their religious beliefs.
In delivering the ruling yesterday, Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, said Ashers had directly discriminated against Gareth Lee.
He rejected the argument that the bakery would be endorsing the slogan by baking the cake.
“The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either,” he said.
The judge said the original ruling had been correct in finding that Ashers had “discriminated against the respondent directly on the grounds of sexual orientation contrary to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2006.”
Afterwards, Ashers general manager Daniel McArthur expressed his “extreme disappointment” with the outcome.
“If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes, then equality law needs to change,” he said.
Flanked by his wife, he continued, “This ruling undermines democratic freedom. It undermines religious freedom. It undermines free speech.”
He said he would consult his lawyer to see if there was any way to mount another legal challenge.
Former DUP Stormont minister, Jim Wells, described the judgment as “an awful decision”.
According to the Christian Institute’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs, Simon Calvert, the ruling will have far-reaching implications.
“Around the world, those who are concerned for free speech will be paying close attention to the judgment of the Belfast court.”
He added, “The case may centre around a single cake but the ramifications for the way society deals with dissenters are enormous.”